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High Maintenance

An essay: Ani DiFranco and the case of too many albums

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Since 1990, Ani DiFranco has released 17 studio albums. She owns her own record label, Righteous Babe Records, and has been constantly acclaimed for being in control of her own artistic output and remaining staunchly independent and music-driven amid the fame and fortune.

Her fans cling to her like mosquitoes to standing water, and her feminist approach to her celebrity and her music has empowered perhaps millions of girls to go ahead and pick up that guitar and sing those swirly diary lines with deep vibrato. Her older, folkier material is now the stuff of generational anthems. Her fight is a good fight. But somehow, while trying to maintain artistic integrity, Ani DiFranco has lost it entirely. She has simply released too many records for anyone except a devout fan to keep up with, and by doing this, she has watered down her own originality.

I read somewhere in 1998 that DiFranco had "flooded her market" by releasing too many albums, and if that was a flood in 1998, then 17 albums in 15 years is (not to make light of current affairs) a tsunami. There are artists who are as prolific as DiFranco, but simply because DiFranco is so unique in her approach to music, by releasing more than a record a year, she has created a bubble whose walls only devout Ani DiFranco fans can walk through. Ani has changed her aesthetic over the years, moving from folk to funk to jazz, experimenting with different sounds; you'd have to if you were releasing an album a year. So with all these albums, all this divergence, 17 records in 15 years is a lot to keep up with.

There is something troublesome about the fact that Ani DiFranco's musical output and fan base is so tightly packed, and my theory is that it has everything to do with the fact that from the beginning, her music was driven by the content of her lyrics more than the technical nature of the music itself. DiFranco was first and foremost a folk singer, and folk music is by definition more lyric-driven than music-driven, but somewhere along the way, the combination of the lyric-driven nature of DiFranco's music and the overwhelming number of songs to listen to has made DiFranco an artist whose message outweighs her musicianship. And so, the devout fans continue to listen not for the music but for the message.

Like the difference between concerts and shows, there is a difference between people who enjoy music and people who love music. People who love music care a little too much. We over-analyze; we crave complexity; we seek ingenuity, and continually need to be impressed. Lyrics are important, but the music itself is just as important; they must both be quality. People who enjoy music listen to it for entirely different reasons; the message may be as important, if not more so, than the actual music. They want the emotion and the message, and they want it delivered in an easy-to-swallow gel cap. It's like the difference between a summer blockbuster movie and an independent art film, or the difference between a literary novel and a supermarket paperback. Not that there's anything terribly wrong with a summer blockbuster or a supermarket paperback: Both have their validity as forms of entertainment. But they are just simply that--forms of entertainment.

Artists like Ani DiFranco fall somewhere between entertainment and art. Even if the music is technically good, there is something suspicious about the smoothness of it, how it seems to be more of a delivery system for the lyrics. DiFranco is a talented musician; she is no Britney Spears, nor is she a PJ Harvey. But I cannot help but put her in the same category that I put bands like Phish and Dave Matthews Band: music for people who just enjoy music. Some kind of depth is lacking, some kind of truly artistic quality just isn't there. In Ani DiFranco's case, I think depth and artistic quality were there once, and perhaps still are. But spread across 17 albums, it's all become a bit too thin.

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